"When some spoilt rich kids on daddy's boat, ruin it for all," is how the incident that has led to the closure of Knysna's lagoon is being described by a licensed tour operator – and by many people on social media.
A video and photos, taken on 28 and 29 December, of expensive recreational boats parked at a popular spot on the Knysna Estuary, tied together for what resembled a party, with no social distancing being observed – has caused an outcry on social media.
But it also led to the estuary being closed as of 31 December to all water activities.
Blatant disregard for regulations
"Based on recent unfortunate events which took place on the Knysna Estuary, where blatant disregard to the adherence of Covid-19 regulations was shown by members of the public (namely, no spatial distancing and no wearing of masks), it proved yet again the need for more stringent controls in order to flatten and reduce the curve of infections during this second and more intense wave spreading through the country," Owen Govender, senior section ranger of Knysna SANParks, said on Thursday.
Govender said that as of today 31 December: "… SANParks has taken the decision to restrict all recreational activities including boating, swimming, skiing, tubing, fishing from vessels, kayaking, canoeing, kite surfing, etc. on the Knysna Estuary as from 31 December 2020 until the NCC has reviewed the Level 3 restrictions.
"What this means is that scores of people who came for their annual holiday in Knysna, towed their boats and paid their licences to be on the water, are now left high and dry – and furious since only commercial operations will still be allowed on the lagoon.
"All commercial operators registered with SANParks as a concessionaire will be allowed to operate their vessels given that they do have all COVID control measures of screening, spatial distancing and wearing of masks in place and strictly adhere to these regulations. No kayak rentals, SUPs, etc. to be operational during this period. Failing to adhere to this may result in the specific operator being restricted due to non-adherence of control measures as per the regulations," says SANParks.
Rich kids behaving badly
"These kids on daddy's boats behaving badly have just damaged the already battered holiday trade here even more," said Evelyn Pepler of Ocean Odyssey, one of the boating tour operators in Knysna.
Knysna executive mayor, Ricky Van Aswegen, said that owing to this incident there was no alternative but to close the estuary, even though the number of Covid-19 infections in Knysna town has decreased over the last five days.
"We had a District Committee Forum meeting (attended by mayors in the region) this morning. The photos and videos of this unfortunate incident have gone viral even reaching people overseas," said Van Aswegen warning that it has now turned into a "very serious situation".
"The last thing we want to see is this become a racial issue, but disadvantaged communities are not happy to see these people breaking the law and not being stopped. Why wasn't action taken against these people is what they are asking," said Van Aswegen, warning that this could have far-reaching consequences.
"Taxi drivers, who are adhering to the regulations imposed on them, could just as well say the law doesn't apply to them. Two wrongs don't make a right. And what will happen to our fight against Covid-19 with an attitude like this," he said.
Pepler, who is also on the board of the Greater Knysna Business Chamber, explained just, "... how ugly this makes Knysna look".
She said that widespread damage has been done because even though commercial operators like Ocean Odyssey were still allowed to operate under strict Covid-19 regulations, "... it has spoilt it for all".
Pepler says the message now that commercial operators are open, but that private boats owned by law-abiding holidaymakers who were following all the safety regulations can't be on the water, is a "bitter pill".
"I feel guilty because we [business operators] are allowed to be on the water, but so many are not. The attitude among people is unhappiness and why are they [tour operators] and not us allowed on the water," said Pepler. "These wealthy white kids, many of whom are from out-of-town totally abused the situation and now we will all pay for it."
There are about 12 commercial operators on the Knysna estuary, including the Black Pearl, Ocean Sailing Charters, and others, who have done their best to comply in every way with Covid-19 regulations like social distancing and capacity, said Pepler.
Her company has two boats which are famous for taking people out the Knysna Heads to see dolphins and whale watch in season – one that normally can take 25 people is now allowed only 18 and 10 people are permitted on the 12-seater.
Now they are all suffering.
"We have had a hard year, expenses and face 90 percent cancellations with only some online bookings coming through now," said Pepler.
Lifetime dream shattered
Mark Taylor saved and bought a small boat for what he calls a, "... lifetime dream of owning a boat which just came true in time for this festive season and this summer".
He is just one of hundreds of people who will be banned from the estuary.
"It's most unfortunate that SANParks did not exercise their authority to evict transgressors from the estuary and instead have applied a blanket ban on all recreational vessels," said a disappointed Taylor.
News24 knows of holidaymakers who are simply going home.
"We bring our boat to our holiday home on Thesen Island every festive season. It's our annual holiday the extended family looks forward to. We understood that beaches were banned, but were still happy to just be on the estuary. And now that's also ruined. Can't even canoe or have a swim! We may as well just go home since being on the water is what the Knysna holiday is all about," said one person.
As of 31 December, according to SANParks and Govender, this is how rules apply on the estuary: "After the announcement by [President Cyril Ramaphosa] on... 28 December, there have been varying interpretations of what this would entail for the Knysna Estuary, which forms part of the Garden Route National Park."
Knysna, within the Garden Route Municipal District, has also been declared a hotspot for the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
"As per the amended regulations: [sic] DISASTER MANAGEMENT ACT, 2002: AMENDMENT OF REGULATIONS ISSUED IN TERMS OF SECTION 27(2), Government Notice 1423, published on 29 December 2020 *36.(9) All beaches, dams, lakes and rivers, inclusive of all recreational facilities at these places, are closed to the public in all areas declared as hotspots."
*This regulation restricts the use of beaches including those within the Knysna Estuary for purposes of walking, running, dog-walking, sunbathing, standing around, or sitting on.
This report initially indicated that the incidents in question took place at the resort Under Milkwood. This was incorrect and the report has since been edited to reflect this. News24 regrets the error.